An Absorbing Bartók Recital from James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók: James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 18.9.2015 (MB)

Rhapsody no.1, BB94a
Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, BB28
Hungarian Folk Tunes from For Children, BB53, arr. Szigeti and Bartók
Violin Sonata no.2 in C major, BB85

I doubt one can ever have too much Bartók; I have certainly never felt any such thing, and did not in this recital of music for violin and piano, two instruments which owe him so much – the piano, if anything, still more than the violin. Listeners often have very strong views about the ‘right’ way to perform his works; indeed, a friend of mine who was present, was less than keen on these performances, very much preferring what I might call a traditionally ‘Hungarian’ manner of playing, although that description clearly begs more questions than answers. I increasingly find myself intrigued by alternatives, not that I should wish to forsake the fire of acknowledged classic performances. Bartók, like any great composer, is for the world, and frankly, the last thing we need in any aspect of our lives is more nationalism. (As for the present political situation in Hungary…)

At any rate, I enjoyed this concert. I have very unhappy memories of playing the piano part in a performance of the first Rhapsody, my recital partner and I falling out of sync for a good few bars, as the music sped up, sounding out of control in quite the wrong way. (I had wanted to play Webern, but anyway…!) Needless to say, this was a far more satisfactory performance. James Ehnes has a classically golden tone, varied when necessary with a wide range of dynamic contrast, all put to good use here. There were times when I found Andrew Armstrong’s pianism a little reticent, a little too much of an ‘accompaniment’, but given my own disastrous showing, I am not inclined to be unduly harsh. During the second, ‘friss’ section, things gathered pace infectiously, Ehnes’s harmonics and crossing of strings especially impressive, the musicians’ partnership real and convincing.

The 1903 E minor Sonata is a fascinating piece. Very little sounds like the mature composer’s works, just as in many of his early piano pieces, some of which I have played with greater success – I think! – than the Rhapsody. One hears a little Strauss, certainly, doubtless a kinship, perhaps kinship rather than influence, with Ernst von Dohnányi, and there are certainly Brahmsian connections too, but to my ears it is Liszt to whom Bartók often comes closest. Structure never quite becomes dynamic form, but this is an apprentice work, and there is much to delight and intrigue. Here, the harmonies in particular seemed relished, especially in the first movement, Romantically marked Allegro moderato (molto rubato). Ehnes and Armstrong seemed keen to point out – or maybe this just emerged naturally – the closeness of some of Bartók’s writing in the slow movement to Brahms in ‘Hungarian’ mode, although even here, Liszt – whose contribution to ‘Hungarian’ music is still often misunderstood – shone through. And the finale danced nicely, if not quite convincingly. Perhaps another performance might have made something less sectional of it, but I think the problem lies more with the work than with how we heard it performed. This was an absorbing opportunity, nevertheless.

The ‘Hungarian Folk Tunes’ from For Children, as arranged by Szigeti and Bartók, made for a characterful introduction to the second half. There is a great deal of variety to be heard here, a variety which came across in winningly unforced fashion. The balance between folk tune and composition was finely achieved throughout. I should happily have listened to such music for much longer.

The principal dish, however, was the second numbered violin sonata, an unquestionable masterpiece – and that is how it sounded here, very much a kinsman to the string quartets. Although the work is ‘in’ C major, its extended tonality – or whatever one wants to call it, and the question is a real one – makes at many times the stronger impression. Ehnes and Armstrong strongly integrated what could readily sound as ‘efects’ into the trajectory of their musical performance. One heard the formal difference between a sonata born of old forms and happy to employ them and one which triumphantly recreated its own form before our ears. Sonata form? Yes, if one will, but one which takes Lisztian formal compression perhaps to an extreme beyond Schoenberg and yet which never makes that compression seem the point. Armstrong’s voicing of chords reminded me at times of the Piano Concertos – and of a fine performance of them at that. Ehnes’s line was equally impressive throughout, clearly projecting expression through the music rather than viewing it as something to be ‘added on’. As a touching encore, we heard the early A major Andante Bartók wrote for Adila d’Arányi, then the object of his affections, its late Romanticism providing just the right sort of contrast.

Mark Berry

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